'Green' power to the people

Israelis tackle environmental issues in their own, somewhat peculiar, way.

green energy 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
green energy 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The power of pictures. The even greater power of captions. There was the Israeli government on March 30 seated in a cave in the Beit She'arim National Park - a historic site of the Sanhedrin - to mark the start of Love Nature, Water and the Environment Week. The symbolism of holding the weekly cabinet session at a site connected to the ancient revered Supreme Court was not lost. But given that any resemblance between today's rulers and the illustrious 71-member Sanhedrin (none with a Volvo although there were presumably other perks) was so tenuous, it was hard not to stick the caption "Cavemen" on the photo opportunity. (Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni didn't attend as she had a meeting in the real world with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.) Still, it is encouraging that the government at last realizes that green is the way to go and saving the country from military and nuclear threats doesn't count for much if the air and water are polluted. Not to mention the pollution of what's left of the land - after you've built Highway No. 6 and what seems like a shopping mall per person. One accident involving a truck packed with hazardous materials could - heaven forbid - result in widespread devastation of the sort that would leave Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad licking his smirking lips. Awareness of environmental issues is definitely a global trend. And if electoral failure were a guarantee of a Nobel Prize a la Al Gore, Israel's leaders might spend less time fighting for their seats in the Knesset or caves or wherever and more time fighting for the environment. As it is, they can only look on: green with envy. THE CAVE meeting produced a flurry of headlines and hopefully a couple of projects worthy of the description "environmental," particularly as I dread to think of all the exhaust fumes produced by the cabinet members, security details and press traveling up to Galilee. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced plans to establish bike trails across the country and upgrade dozens of camping sites, although one cynic here at the Post noted, "If we can't even get the light rail in Jerusalem and a railway system in Tel Aviv running, what are the chances of getting nationwide bike paths in the near future?" Indeed, residents of my Jerusalem neighborhood are having trouble establishing a bike path and a park alongside a new road instead of a four-lane monstrosity encouraging the use of even more private vehicles. Somehow good intentions seem to go up in smoke. While the cabinet was supposedly in green mode, doing what comes naturally, the Knesset Interior and Environmental Affairs Committee was holding another marathon discussion of the Clean Air Bill. The vote was delayed, however, by at least another month, as the government ministries demanded more time to sort out their various fields of jurisdiction. It could literally make you choke. The Make the Polluter Pay principle seems fine in theory, but in practice any fines take years to collect and in the meantime the ordinary man - or more often asthmatic child - is the one who pays the price. The Clean Air Bill, incidentally, has been under discussion in the Knesset for three years. It was sponsored by Omri Sharon, who is now sitting in prison. And how is it that plans to build a second coal-burning power station in Ashkelon continue to advance when Israel has no supplies of the highly polluting fossil fuel while plans for desalination plants in a country with a coastline and a water crisis seem to be drowning in bureaucracy? The sun has not been shining on the country's solar energy projects either, despite the fact that Israel really is a world leader in this field. Instead of sitting in a cave to further green issues, it would make more sense for the government to pass laws facilitating "green construction," buildings designed to save energy. Unless, of course, we can find a way to harness all the hot air produced by MKs and ministers. TO BE fair, this is not the first time ministers have used gimmicks to raise the serious issues of environmental protection. In September 1993, I reported on the surrealistic start of Environment Year. A ceremony was held at the top of the massive Hiriya garbage dump near Tel Aviv, attended by president Ezer Weizman - Shimon Peres might be surprised to learn he is not the first "green" resident of Beit Hanassi in Jerusalem - environment minister Yossi Sarid and Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat among others. As a youth band played Dixieland music, the dignitaries and members of the press tucked into a buffet breakfast atop the mountain of trash. Encouragingly enough, Hiriya has itself finally been recycled. It took years, but the landfill eventually closed down and was turned into a focal point of the Ayalon Park. The smell is now of sweet success and the 360-degree view of the Tel Aviv region is fantastic. Trendy Tel Aviv, of course, is eager to get in on the green act. On Thursday, March 27, it did its bit by participating in Earth Hour, a worldwide effort to raise awareness of global warming, just in case anyone hasn't got the message yet. The local event had a definite Israeli flavor, being held ahead of the rest of the world's activities because they took place on a Saturday night. (And if you can get Tel Avivians to alter an event for the Sabbath, there really is hope that you can get the rest of the globe to change their lifestyles to halt harmful climate change.) Some 40,000 people gathered in Rabin Square as the city turned off its lights for an hour between 8 and 9 p.m. and heard a concert by some of the country's most successful performers powered by - I kid you not - cyclists pedaling very hard and distilled falafel oil. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai started the countdown and Peres, from a rooftop position far more aesthetic than Weizman's perch on Hiriya, obligingly turned off the power of the Azrieli Towers. Again, the gimmick factor overtook the green benefit. Although Israel Electric said Tel Aviv residents largely cooperated with the municipality's campaign and turned off their lights, since the concert was broadcast live it is safe to assume that Israelis outside the self-styled City that Never Sleeps switched on televisions or computers to watch. Nonetheless, again the principle of togetherness and saving the earth was preserved. And there is something to be said for that. On March 28, the Post's Ehud Zion Waldoks wrote a story that a report commissioned by UJA-NY and the CRB Foundation had found that environmental activism could be the "special interest" that unites the Jewish world and reignites Jewish philanthropy. My hope is that it can also unite people at home: Jews, Arabs, religious and secular. After all, nearly everyone agrees on the need to save the land itself. Working together might not make us go out and hug a neighbor or even hug a tree, but it might make us think twice before chopping one down.